Tonight’s debate is taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, a state that Trump won by 8 points in 2020. Pundits subsequently concluded that the state had turned solidly Republican, but polls show Biden with a small lead this time round. Here’s a story from Demetri Sevastopulo, our Washington Bureau Chief, on how Trump is trying to retain his edge with white working class voters in Ohio and other battleground states in the rust-belt and Midwest.
I spent much of last week on a 13-hour road trip from NYC to Chicago in order to drop my daughter at college and much of that time was spent driving through Pennsylvania, which has arguably become the single most important swing state in the nation.
Pennsylvania is, as Southern liberal politico James Carville once put it, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. In between those two places, there are hundreds of miles of farmland and plenty of people who voted for Trump last time around. He’s done nothing for them, of course. The broadband is still spotty, the highway potholes rife and the debt mounting.
Unfortunately, state politics during the pandemic reflect the national divide. As one source in state government put it to me, “when anyone tries to slow down and plan out a thoughtful re-opening, they get lambasted as being too liberal. When anyone makes the point that we need to avoid total economic collapse, they are labeled crazy conservatives. It’s just all finger pointing. And if we don’t get federal help after November, it will be all-out war.”
Which brings me to the key point that Biden must hammer home in tonight's debate: it’s all about the president’s mishandling of the pandemic, which has claimed 200,000 American lives. In some ways, little else right now matters. But in other ways the Trump Covid debacle is just illustrative of the fact that he’s not a leader, he’s a paranoid narcissist. He isn’t capable of respecting or caring for others — that’s the DSM definition of narcissistic personality disorder.
Biden, on the other hand, is nothing if not empathetic and respectful. My one worry about the debates is that Biden’s inherent dignity will make it difficult for him to handle Trump, who is like the guy in oncoming traffic who wins a war over who will swerve by pulling off his steering wheel. I think the way forward is to treat Trump like the toddler he is, speak slowly and make him sputter (Elizabeth Warren’s quip, “Donald, it’s time to put on your big boy pants” comes to mind), and double down on empathy when addressing the audience. My fingers are crossed that the people in Pennsylvania and the other swing states won’t fall for a con man twice.
The thing to remember about tonight’s debate is that Donald Trump’s back is to the wall. I don’t mean the polls, which are nevertheless looking ominous. I mean his taxes. The New York Times tax scoop may not sway many swing voters -- to the extent that endangered species of American is even paying attention. But it does increase the likelihood that Cyrus Vance, the New York District Attorney, will bring a criminal prosecution for tax fraud.
As we learned from last year's Special Counsel investigation, being president gives Mr Trump personal immunity and shields him from his lenders, to whom he owes roughly $300m in the next four years, according to the New York Times report. So his incentive to stay in office is pretty much existential. I don’t believe this has been true of any other president in US history. All of which means he's likely to play even dirtier than normal in tonight’s debate, which is saying something.
To be sure, the NYT tax story has given Joe Biden some easy attack lines (how many essential workers are paying more in federal taxes than the president’s $750 tax bill in his first year as president?). But it will also boost Trump’s instinct to go for the jugular, the shins, and other tender spots within reach. Expect Trump to call on Hunter Biden to release his returns. Expect him also to echo Fox News’ reference to “the Biden crime family”.
Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor
Welcome to the FT’s first ever US presidential debate “watch-along” with our two Swamp Notes columnists, Ed Luce in Washington and Rana Foroohar in New York, and me, your virtual innkeeper.
We’ll be providing real-time commentary and analysis of the Trump-Biden fireworks in Cleveland, Ohio, from the safety of our socially-distant laptops in the hopes of giving FT readers a bit of added insight gleaned from years of reporting and writing about US politics.
There are, of course, limits to real-time commentary. The history of presidential debates are rife with examples of showdowns where the meaning was not clear until days or weeks later. Famously, Richard Nixon was deemed the “winner” of the first televised debate in 1960, only to learn much later that John Kennedy’s image of youth and vigour was more important with voters who watched the exchange.
Similarly, in 1976 — the first time general election debates were reintroduced after those Nixon-Kennedy duels — incumbent Gerald Ford ended up in hot water after claiming there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”. But that gaffe was largely overlooked on the night. As Rick Perlstein notes in his new history of the era, early polls had Ford beating Jimmy Carter by a wide margin, and Dick Cheney, who was managing Ford’s re-election campaign, had scored the president the big winner. But the flub eventually helped solidify the image of Ford not quite being up to the job.
Which is all to say that we may miss something. We may over-interpret. We may declare a turning point where there is none. But that is all part of creating what the late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham called “the first rough draft of history”. In this deadly serious political season, we are also hoping to inject a bit of fun back into election-watching. For good or for ill, modern politics includes a bit of show business — Hollywood for ugly people, in the famous expression — and perhaps no set piece on the US electoral calendar encapsulates that more than presidential debates.
This is how I’ve been preparing for tonight’s event: re-watching old Saturday Night Live parodies of previous presidential debates. Here are my top five:
— Chevy Chase as Jerry Ford —
He did nothing to try to look like the president, but Chase’s depiction of Ford did as much to solidify the incumbent’s image as a slightly dim jock (Ford played football at the University of Michigan) than Ford’s own miscues (see above). My favourite is when Chase-as-Ford is asked a complicated question about unemployment from Jane Curtain, to which he responds: “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”
— Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz reprise Bush-Dukakis —
Much has been written about Carvey’s depiction of George HW Bush, an impression that Bush himself eventually warmed to. What I had forgotten was how funny Lovitz was as Dukakis. The whole debate (featuring Tom Hanks as the late ABC News presenter Peter Jennings) is hysterical, but my favourite moment is when Lovitz-as-Dukakis is asked to respond to a fumbling Carvey-as-Bush word salad: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
— Darrell Hammond as Al Gore —
Much like Carvey’s take on Bush, this parody is mostly remembered as one of Will Ferrell’s first outings as Bush the Younger (remember “strategery”? This is where it was coined). But Hammond’s eye-rolling, deep-sighing Gore is brutal, particularly for his repeated and overly-earnest invocation of “lockbox”, one of Gore’s central deficit-reduction policies. It helped doom Gore.
— Dana Carvey as Ross Perot —
The amazing thing here is that Carvey plays both Perot and Bush père thanks to a bit of pre-taping, with the late Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton. For me, the most memorable moment is at the very end when Carvey-as-Bush and Hartman-as-Clinton look over at Perot, and you see what’s on their minds: one of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.
— Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump —
The only reason I don’t rank this one higher is that Baldwin was funnier as Trump in other, later bits. Still, this debate sketch with Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton is Baldwin’s debut. There’s no single moment that stands out in Baldwin’s bravura performance here, though given recent revelations about Trump’s taxes, the exchange where McKinnon-as-Clinton accuses Baldwin-as-Trump of “never paying taxes in his life” reverberates four years later. Baldwin’s response? McKinnon is getting “warmer”.
We’ll have to save Tina Fey’s depiction of Sarah Palin for next week’s vice-presidential debate. Enjoy!